Biden Has This Little-Known Option for Making Big Climate Impact

Our oceans are an asset for saving the planet, not lining Big Oil's pockets.

Tugboats tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico in 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas.
Tugboats tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico in 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

The United States’ climate action has been undercut by political gridlock — but there is hope. The Biden administration can enact big climate policy whose survival doesn’t depend on the next presidential election.

Enter: the government’s five-year offshore oil lease plan. Earthjustice fights in the courts to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and in some cases, we push the government to enact strong climate policies so that we don’t have to go to court. The Biden administration has a unique and critical opportunity when drafting a new plan this year to make one simple choice that could help avert us from the worst of the climate catastrophe.

What the five-year plan is:

  • This plan, known as the Five-Year National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, determines how — or, crucially, if — the United States uses its assets in federal waters, namely underwater oil and gas.
  • The overwhelming majority of offshore drilling happens in the Gulf of Mexico, home to infamous oil spills like BP Deepwater Horizon and Taylor.
  • Every five years, an executive branch agency called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), housed within the Interior Department, outlines a new plan.
  • The agency determines where and how much ocean territory the government leases to fossil fuel companies to extract oil and gas from our ocean floors.
  • Legally, BOEM must factor in what would “best meet national energy needs,” and its plan must be consistent with the government’s environmental protection priorities, as well as other economic and social values. Earthjustice’s recent legal wins have ensured that the government also accounts for climate impacts when issuing leases.

How the five-year plan can make a huge difference in the climate crisis:

  • The short answer: The administration could simply not offer any new offshore leases to fossil fuel companies.
  • It is well within Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s authority to provide no new lease sales in BOEM’s next Five-Year Program.
  • Adopting such a plan would prevent new destruction and carbon emissions in U.S. waters across the Atlantic, Pacific, Alaska, and the Gulf of Mexico, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office during the next five years.
  • Offshore oil and gas leasing threatens marine life and precious ecosystems via drilling in the seafloor, deafening seismic blasts, and catastrophic oil spills. These activities and their carbon emissions fuel extreme weather by heating up ocean waters and raising the sea level, while simultaneously weakening vital marine ecosystems.
  • In contrast, ending federal offshore leasing would have profound climate and environmental justice benefits, from reducing greenhouse gas pollution rates to protecting vital ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Leasing more of our oceans won’t help domestic gas prices — but it would hurt nearby communities.

  • Contrary to conservative misinformation, gas prices are largely determined by global energy markets and geopolitical events, not domestic policies. On average, new offshore lease sales, take 10 years to develop, meaning that new leases will do nothing to help soaring gas prices. And in a decade we must be well into a clean energy transition.
  • The fossil fuel industry has already leased but not yet developed a huge stockpile of offshore leases. With many forms of zero-emissions energy now widely available and affordable, there is no need for the government to lease more of the ocean to oil companies.
  • Gulf communities in particular have been irreparably harmed by oil and gas drilling on our coasts. We must focus on a transition to a clean energy economy that doesn’t continue the industry practice of sacrificing parts of the population.

To meet its climate goals, the Biden administration must stop the sale of U.S waters to oil and gas companies.

The climate crisis is undeniably our current reality — but it is not yet an unavoidable future. Tell President Biden to use this powerful tool to make good on his campaign promises.

Alison Cagle is a writer at Earthjustice. She is based in San Francisco. Alison tells the stories of the earth: the systems that govern it, the ripple effects of those systems, and the people who are fighting to change them — to protect our planet and all its inhabitants.